By Juan Pacheco
New America Media
WASHINGTON, D.C.Ernesto (not his real name) lived in Virginia with his partner, who was pregnant with their child. A native of El Salvador, Ernesto entered the United States seeking work so that he could support his growing family.
In April 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a carnival near the Springfield Mall. Ernesto was arrested in the sweep and placed in a detention center in Farmville, Va., where he awaited his deportation hearing. Ernesto knew he couldn’t stay in the United States, but he wanted to be released for a short period, under a form of immigration relief known as voluntary departure, so he could take care of his partner before leaving. Little did he know that because he was arrested under “Operation Community Shield,” a joint ICE-local police national program to arrest alleged violent gang members, his application for voluntary departure would be denied.
But Ernesto wasn’t in a gang. The most serious crime he ever committed involved a minor driving offense. But in Immigration Court the mere allegation of his gang membership was enough for the judge to deny Ernesto’s request. Though there was no evidence supporting gang affiliation, the judge ruled that Ernesto was too much of a public safety threat to be released.
Ernesto remains in detention, unable to care for his wife, who is in her seventh month of pregnancy. She will have to rely on public benefits to get through this difficult time. And Ernesto will be in detention through the holidays, waiting for ICE to deport him to El Salvador.
In response to this ICE initiative, immigration advocates, youth violence prevention groups and community service organizations on Dec. 20 held press conferences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Florence, Ariz., expressing grave concerns about Operation Community Shield and similar programs that seek to turn local and state police into immigration agents. We demanded to know the extent of cooperation of the police in immigration raids. In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area alone, 101 arrests have been made the highest in the nation.
We want to make it crystal-clear that we are opposed to gang violence. Our groups represent communities whose youths and families have been most hurt by gang crime. But the media sensationalism around gang activity and violence has reached a fever pitch, even in the face of government data showing that gang violence dropped 73 percent from 1994 to 2003.
Influenced by such distorted depictions, lawmakers have designed bills using “terrorism” models to combat gang violence, even when the FBI and the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association have stated that any connection to terrorism is “speculative.”
Consider Judiciary Committee Chairman James Chairman Sensenbrenner’s H.R. 4437, a bill recently passed by the House. This harsh bill would further criminalize non-citizens by making unlawful presence a felony crime; make any friend, co-worker, co-congregant of an undocumented immigrant into an “alien smuggler” and a criminal; broaden the range of offenses that will make the offender deportable; make it harder for someone to get lawful permanent residency; and officially turn police into immigration agents.
Turning police into immigration agents means that ultimately, our streets will be made less safe for everyone. That’s because non-citizen victims of crime will be afraid to file reports with the police if doing so could bring the risk deportation. The ICE-local police initiative undermines the hard-won trust between immigrant communities and the police and disrupts community policing programs. Important resources are diverted from local police priorities to making immigration arrests.
Local police enforcement of immigration law also exacerbates racial profiling. Think of how many times we hear that tattoos or baggy clothes of certain colors are “definite indicators” of gang membership. Those of us who work with gangs know that it’s not always so clear-cut.
Sensenbrenner’s bill will result in hardship to immigrants, their children, family members, employers, fellow students and community members who depend on and benefit from their presence, productivity and important contributions.
Reform efforts that focus on enforcement alone haven’t worked to bring about a rational or effective immigration system because they ignore the complex realities of existing family ties and the needs of employers and employees alike. For immigration reform to be truly effective, it must balance appropriate enforcement measures with a workable admissions, employment and family unification program.
Enlisting local police to enforce immigration law has already torn apart immigrant families. Just consider Ernesto, his partner and their soon-to-be-born infant.
Juan Pacheco, a 27-year-old youth organizer for Barrios Unidos, Inc. in Northern Virginia.